August 24, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

Nikon answers Canon with full-frame SLR

Nikon answers Canon with full-frame SLR
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Nikon will become the first company to challenge Canon in the high-end realm of digital SLR cameras with image sensors the size of a full frame of 35mm film.

Nikon's D3, a 12.1-megapixel professional model set to go on sale in November for $5,000, employs an FX-size sensor whose height is only 0.1mm shy of 36x24mm film frame. Such sensors mean camera lenses behave optically as they do on film SLRs and that sensor pixels can be made larger and more sensitive.

The move is a major philosophical and technological departure for Nikon.

Nikon has been gaining SLR market share against Canon, but the latter has years of experience in the full-frame market. Canon introduced its first full-frame camera, the EOS-1Ds, in 2002. On Monday, Canon announced its second successor, the $8,000 EOS-1Ds Mark III. In 2004, it introduced a lower-priced alternative for enthusiasts, the EOS 5D, which now costs about $2,600.

Nikon's announcement on Thursday is a major shot in the arm for the full-frame format for 35mm cameras. The more expensive medium-format cameras--which, despite the name, use film or sensor sizes that are significantly larger than 35mm film--are in use almost exclusively by professional photographers. And larger formats are even rarer.

Previously, with only Canon supporting full-frame format digital cameras, there was a possibility that the format would be relegated only to a very high-end niche.

Nikon's full-frame SLR

"There will be a lot of others," Lyra Research analyst Steve Hoffenberg said regarding the full-frame trend. "The big question is whether it's going take two or four or eight years to get there."

Even with Nikon and potentially others, it's likely that the mass SLR market will stick with smaller sensors. The sensors and matched lenses are considerably less expensive to manufacture.

The D3 isn't the Nikon's only news. The company also announced the $1,800, 12.3-megapixel D300, which like its D200 predecessor, uses a smaller DX-size sensor. If the D3 is an answer to Canon's 1Ds Mark III, the D300 is an answer to another Canon model announced Monday, the $1,300 EOS 40D.

Full-frame complications
A full-frame sensor is a feature that some Nikon fans jealously eyed in Canon 35mm models. But adding it poses complications, especially for higher-end enthusiasts who've invested in Nikon lenses that support only the smaller DX size or who are considering new lens purchases. DX lenses will work only in a limited 5.1-megapixel mode on FX cameras, and the two formats can pose confusing compatibility and performance issues for consumers.

One issue: Nikon DX camera owners buying new lenses will have to consider whether to buy DX models or FX alternatives that likely will be bulkier and more expensive. The DX models will work on their current camera, but will they want to upgrade to a full-frame model in the future? Buying a $5,000 professional model is out of the price range of even serious enthusiasts, but it's possible Nikon will add lower-end full-frame cameras, as Canon did with the 5D two years after its first full-frame model.

Nikon didn't answer whether it plans lower-end full-frame models, but Hoffenberg believes the company will. "It's inevitable, eventually, but it's not short term," he said.

Nikon will offer both FX and DX-only lenses in the future, the company said in a statement: "Both Nikon FX and DX formats provide their own advantages, and Nikon recognizes that both formats are necessary in order to satisfy its diverse customer demands. Based on this recognition, Nikon will strengthen its digital SLR lineup with the addition of the D3 FX-format SLR camera and a broadened assortment of Nikkor interchangeable lenses, while continuing to develop and market high-performance DX-format cameras and lenses."

Smaller sensors "see" a narrower field of view than full-frame sensors, so what a photographer sees through the viewfinder is different. For example, a lens with a 75mm focal length on a Nikon full-frame FX camera has the same field of view as a 50mm lens on Nikon DX. That "field of view crop factor" of 1.5 for Nikon and 1.6 for non-full-frame Canon SLRs with the "APS-C" sensor means that film photographers moving to digital SLRs often had to buy new wide-angle lenses.

Nikon also announced five new high-end lenses that the full-frame sensor, all due in November: a $1,800 14-24mm F/2.8 zoom and $1,700 24-70mm F/2.8 zoom, a $8,800 F/2.8 400mm fixed telephoto, a $7,900 500mm F/4 fixed telephoto and a $9,500 F/4 600mm fixed telephoto.

CONTINUED: Other full-frame competition?…
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New wide zoom is a 14-24 f2.8G ED
Not 12-24/2.8 as stated. (Nikon has an existing 12-24/2.8 DX.)
Posted by mbenedict (1001 comments )
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Change made
You are correct--we've made the change to the story. thanks for reading
Posted by mike ricciuti (12 comments )
Link Flag
How will they answer Canon now?
Interesting that Canon increased their flagship camera to 21mp,
like one day before this was announced.
Posted by rpphoto555 (31 comments )
Reply Link Flag
compatibility horse is out of the barn
In the formative days of digital, pro- and semi-pro photographers were demanding full-frame digitals because it would have enabled them to make the transition to digital using the expensive collections of 35mm lenses they had built up. Unfortunately, the industry was reluctant to comply and the photographers were unaware of the technical differences between electronic receiving plates and film. Now that time has passed most of the 35mm lenses everyone was hoping to use are obsolete because of changes in lense electronics and camera interfaces, and photographers understand that lenses must be made to optimize the image against the curved digital sensors. 35mm full-frame compatibility is yesterday's issue, too late to serve the original need, though such cameras will serve as a poor man's "medium format". There are size and weight advantages to the smaller-sensor SLR's and the manufacturers just need to be sure their lense lines include genuine wideangle lenses, the focal lengths that disappeared when 35mm lenses were retooled into digitals...
Posted by Razzl (1318 comments )
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There still are a lot of old lenses floating around
I agree with you for the most part, especially since a lot of buyers of lower-end SLRs never had an SLR before. But there are a lot of pros out there who still use old lenses--good ones don't go out of date as fast as computers--so I don't think the issue of compatibility with existing lens collections still has some currency. In addition, some people might enjoy getting the original behavior back--for example, a favorite 70-200mm zoom being a more moderate telephoto.
Posted by Shankland (1858 comments )
Link Flag
The digital Cinema has arrived.
Hollywood has been using 4K digital (4000 pixels horizontally, and however many it takes vertically to make the aspect ratio.) for post production for several years now.

One unexpected side effect of the thange was a new standard for makeup. The digital post production process was so much sharper than 35MM internegative, release prints, etc., the guys eyeliner became visible.

Now we see imaging chips that exceed the editing formats, the processing frame rate is faster than needed, MPEG uses 2 keyframes per second, the rest is motion data, easily picked up by a second, standard definition, 60i or higher, camera placed two inches to the right. The vector information from the offset, the motion information from the high speed camera, and the SHD spatial information from the SLR's chip provide the movie's editors with a fully time rendered, three dimensional model of the event being photographed.

More real than real, and the actors possibly more Human then Human.
Posted by disco-legend-zeke (448 comments )
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the lense for Einstein's space
You mention 3d modelling from sofware. I find it intriguing to consider what frontiers are left for the lense as imaging device and the one frontier I see ahead which was never exploited by the camera industry during the heyday of 35mm film photography is the use of the bellows lense for almost unlimited perspective control. Maybe it was because the bellows lenses used on the View Camera seemed so quaint that nobody cared what they did, but the View Camera remains one of the most powerful imaging devices in photography because of its unique control over perspective. I realize software can edit perspective after the fact, but flexible-tube bellows with autofocus or internal joints could allow astonishing feats of photography out in the field, and editing "in camera" is always preferable to software as the first step...
Posted by Razzl (1318 comments )
Link Flag
Long time coming
It seems to me that I saw a full frame insert for optical 35 mm cameras as a drop in accessory a while back. Advertised for $800. supposedly, I looked everywhere and no one had seem and few had heard of such a device. Just give me a cannister and window image size device and I'll be happy. Don't give me all that automatic controls, maybe a USB port or XD/SD memory slot. I know it can be done but will the mfgrs do it..
Posted by mjd420nova (91 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I bought Nikon D40X 1 year ago... and I am still happy that made correct choice.
This is really nice camera with nice lens. I just wish to have in our city (Lviv) more repair centers for Nikon cameras. Month ago I had a small problem with battery, nobody could repair it. Everybody asked to find repair instruction. In Internet there is no good instructions. Found just:
<a href="">repair manual for D40</a>
<a href="">nicon repair manual</a>

But on these sites I didn't found info that I need... Maybe somebody can give me links to other such sites?
Posted by vladimir5130 (2 comments )
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